This House would hold students legally responsible for bullying if it resulted in the victim's death

Bullying can be any form of behavior, physical or verbal, intended to berate, humiliate, scare, or harass another person. The behavior is usually repetitive, and can extend over a long period of time. Bullies are frequently in a position of power over their victims, either physical or social. Bullying has always existed in schools and in a myriad of other environments from the home to the workplace. In the past, it was viewed as a harmless right of passage children had to go through to ‘toughen up’. But in recent years, a better understanding of the traumatic effects it can have on its victims, has increasingly highlighted how damaging a phenomenon bullying is. It can lead to serious psychological problems, like depression and even suicide. Both the shooters in the Columbine high school massacre (1999) and the Virginia Tech school shooting (2007) had been bullied for years before they opened fire on fellow students and then killed themselves. The media has also shined a light on the problem by widely reporting on high profile cases like that of Tyler Clementi, 18, who committed suicide after being outed as gay on the internet by his roommate, and Phoebe Prince, 15, who hung herself after months of torment by students at her school. There are also indications that the rates of suicide caused by bullying are higher for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) youth. This heightened awareness has led to numerous initiatives to tackle the problem, through both government and civil society programmes. But what, if any, should be the legal response against bullies? Should we just focus on prevention and the protection of victims, or should the bullies themselves face the force of the law if their actions lead to loss of life?

Title 
The law should always punish actions that inflict serious harm - whether physical or psychological
Point 

 Bullying can inflict serious psychological harm on its victims, especially in the case of young people. It leads to low self-esteem, depression, and for some kids it leads to suicide[1].  Bullied children are almost 6 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide[2]. This phenomenon has been termed ‘bullycide’ and the law should recognize it. Many forms of behaviour that result in the death of another person are criminal, from murder to negligence. It is the duty of the law to brand such behaviour as unacceptable, deter future incidents, punish the perpetrators, and offer comfort to victims: in this case, the families of those who lost their life to bullying.   

 

[1] O'Moore, Mona, “Understanding School Bullying: A Guide for Parents & TeachersVeritas, 1, Dublin, 2010

[2] Kim YS, Leventhal BL, Koh YJ, Boyce WT “Bullying Increased Suicide Risk: Prospective Study of Korean Adolescents”. Arch Suicide Res. Vol. 13, No. 1, pp15-30. 2009. 

Counterpoint 

The law should only punish people for their own actions, not those of others. It’s fine to punish bullies for their bullying behaviour, if it is against the law. But ‘bullycide’ implies the bully bears individual responsibility for the death of the victim, just like in the case of murder or manslaughter. But the bully did not pull the trigger, the victim did. While the bully may have intended to harm or berate the victim, she made no attempt on the victim’s life, and cannot be treated like a murderer, who intentionally took the life of another.

Title 
The bully's intentions are irrelevant
Point 

In criminal law, the establishment of culpability does not always depend on the intentions of the perpetrator. If, during a fight on a train platform, I shove someone and that person falls on the tracks and is killed by a train, I will be guilty of manslaughter, whether I intended to kill the person or not, because the harm caused by my actions is so great[1]. The same applies to bullying. Bullies try to hurt their victims through their actions, either physically or psychologically. Whether the bully intended for the victim to die or not, is irrelevant. The bully’s actions were responsible for the victim taking her own life.

[1] Ashworth, Andrew. Principles of Criminal Law, Chapter 7.5. Oxford University Press. 2009.

Counterpoint 

There is a fundamental difference between someone’s actions directly resulting in another person’s death and the case of bullying. In the case of manslaughter, the victim never had a choice. The perpetrator is solely responsible for what happened. But some victims of bullying take a decision to kill themselves, while others do not. The bully cannot be held responsible for someone else’s decision and action, only for her own.

Title 
The damage wrought by bullying is cumulative
Point 

Bullying is truly dangerous when it becomes persistent. Any one incident of it, while unpleasant, may be entirely tolerable for the victim. But being unrelentingly subjected to this treatment for months on end can make life truly unbearable and lead that person to suicide. In the case of Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant who was bullied at her US high school, she was called expletives, threatened, and even hit with a beverage container before she finally took her life[1]. She may have survived any one of those taunts, but it was their cumulative effect that was too much to bear. Conversely, punishing her bullies for any one act will fail to acknowledge the much greater extent of the overall harm. A different, special offence is needed to recognize the magnified level of harm caused by bullying.

 

[1] Eckholm, Eric; Zezima, Katie. “Documents Detail a Girl’s Final Days of Bullying”. The New York Times. April 8, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/us/09bully.html

Counterpoint 

We should always focus on stopping the behaviour before it escalates to the point of the victim’s suicide. Bullies should be held to account early on. We shouldn’t wait until someone dies before they are punished. If victims know there will be early intervention, they will be far less likely to even consider suicide. If they know the bullies won’t be punished until after their death, it might even encourage some distraught victims to kill themselves in the hope of exact vengeance on their tormenters. Early intervention is a much better outcome for everyone.

Title 
The current legal regime is not able to prevent or adequately punish bullying
Point 

Even when bullies are sometimes prosecuted, they are charged with offences that constitute individual components of the bullying behaviour, like harassment, stalking, causing bodily harm[1], or invasion of privacy[2]. But these offences were not designed with bullying in mind and fail to capture its overall impact and the harm it causes. While bullies may be charged with several of these offenses this will still not capture the kind of harm being done and would not be as effective as a specifically tailored offense. We need laws that recognize that harm and which punish those who inflict it adequately.

[1] Eckholm, Erick. “Two Students Plead Guilty in Bullying of Teenager.” The New York Times. May 4, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/us/05bully.html

[2] Foderaro, Lisa W. “Private Moment Made Public. Then a fatal Jump.” The New York Times.  September 29. 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/30/nyregion/30suicide.html

Counterpoint 

The laws are inadequate because it is very hard to define bullying. Almost any act or gesture can constitute bullying depending the victim’s subjective experience of it. Criminalizing bullying would lead to criminalizing behaviour that would be considered normal by most standards. 

Title 
Individuals should only be held responsible for the consequences of their own actions
Point 

In any free and democratic society, criminal law should only hold people accountable for the things they do, not for the actions of others. We are all autonomous, moral agents who make decisions and have to live with their consequences and the consequences of our actions. While it might be justified to punish bullies for their bullying behavior, if it breaks the law, we cannot hold them accountable for another person’s decision to commit suicide.  

Counterpoint 

Under this law, bullies would be held accountable for their own actions, not those of the victim. The law wouldn’t have to equate them with murderers, punish them as harshly, or suggest they bear sole and full responsibility for the victim’s death. But it would make it clear they bear some responsibility for the outcome, and that they should be punished for their role. If they are children, they can be prosecuted as juvenile offenders and given less harsh punishments, like community service.

Title 
Conduct offence
Point 

Defining bullying would be nearly impossible. Spreading rumours, giving someone the silent treatment, inviting all your classmates but one to a party, expressing a religious belief about someone’s sexuality, eye rolling, making faces, these can all be hurtful and perceived as bullying[1]. Yet this is perfectly legal behaviour. Criminalizing bullying would amount to criminalizing these acts. They may be offensive, they may even be hurtful, but these gestures should never, ever constitute criminal behaviour in any society that is concerned with human rights, freedom of speech, and of expression. Throwing someone in prison for spreading rumours or eye rolls might be worthy of a totalitarian state, but not a liberal democracy.

[1] Bolton, José, and Stan Graeve. No Room for Bullies: from the Classroom to Cyberspace. Boys Town Press. 2005.

Counterpoint 

We criminalize behaviour when it is truly harmful. Especially when it is so harmful that it leads to someone losing her life. Eye rolling and gossip are not harmful enough to be criminal offences. Nor would they be under this law. What would become a criminal offence would be the sustained and prolonged torment of another person to the point of pushing her to committing suicide, whatever forms that torment takes, whether it’s gay slurs, or physical threats and insults. It has also long been established that there are limits to the freedom of speech or expression we enjoy, if that can result in the direct harm of others. For example, we don’t allow people to incite violence against others.

Title 
It is difficult to make a direct, legally sound link between a bully's behaviour and a victim's suicide
Point 

Many of the children and adolescents who take their own lives allegedly as a result of bullying have a far more complicated background. Some already struggle with depression, and have unstable family situations that make it hard to turn to their parents for help with their problems. Phoebe Prince, for example, was taking anti-depressants, was devastated by her parents’ divorce, was self harming, and had already attempted suicide after a break up. And that was long before she was allegedly bullied to death[1]. She was a very troubled young woman, and anything could have pushed her over the edge. It would be hard to find the bullies criminally responsible for her death.

 

[1] Bazelon, Emily. “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? Entry 2”. Slate. July 20. 2010. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/bulle/features/2010/what_really_happe...

Counterpoint 

Of course there will always be ambiguous cases. That is why we have trials, and rights for the defendant. The weight of the evidence presented in court should establish what degree of culpability, if any, the bullies had. If the prosecution does not have a solid case to present, it may even choose not to prosecute. But the law should be in place for those cases where it is needed.

Title 
Making bullying a legal issues does not incentivise robust enforcement of anti bullying rules by schools
Point 

Schools are educational establishments that parents trust to protect and educate their children. Teachers and school administrators are those who should be keeping a watchful eye on the students in their care and intervene before harm comes to them. If bullying occurs at school, then that school has failed in its duties. In fact, in cases where suicides occurred, it has often later come to light that a bullying culture was widely tolerated at the school, and that school staff that knew about it did nothing to prevent it, with tragic results[1]. To prosecute the bullies would shift responsibility from the woeful failure of the adults around them, who should have known better and done more than the children in their care.

[1] Bazelon, Emily. “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? Entry 1”. Slate. July 20. 2010. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/bulle/features/2010/what_really_happe...

Counterpoint 

Prosecutions of bullies responsible for suicides, and improved safety in schools are not mutually exclusive goals. Programmes need to be set up that stop bullying early on, give victims support, and people to turn to when they are in need. Schools and their administrators can and should also be held accountable to their boards, and the community. But in those cases where tragedies still happen in spite of such measures, the culprits should be held to account.

Title 
Bullys are frequently as disturbed and victimised as those they target
Point 

According to studies, bullies are often children who are plagued by their own problems: a troubled family situation, feeling of inadequacy, depression, or pressure to fit in[1]. Their bullying behaviour might just be a coping mechanism and a cry for help. These children might need as much support and care as those they bully. Putting them through the harrowing experience of a criminal trial, and potentially throwing them in prison will further damage them. Destroying one young life as retribution for another is a model of justice that should find no place in a compassionate society.

[1] Carroll, Linda. ”Kids with ADHD may be more likely to bully”. MSNBC. 29 January 2008. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22813400/#.Tvmm8iNWoVc

Counterpoint 

Bullies are often children, most of them in their teens. However, they are at an age where they do know right from wrong and can, therefore, be held accountable for their actions. Neither their young age nor their own suffering can justify bearing responsibility for someone else’s death.  Most criminal justice systems recognize that children are liable for their behaviour, by allowing children as young as 10, in the UK for example, to be charged with criminal offences. Their age and personal situation can, nevertheless, be taken into account in deciding what punishment they should receive (prison, community service, a fine, etc.). And there is no reason why rehabilitation and education cannot be part, or even the focus, of that punishment.

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